Any fitness trainer or influencer worth their salt will tell you the significance of adding isolation exercises for your arms. Oh yeah, we know what you are thinking.
‘Aren’t compound exercises like the bent-over row and one arm row, enough to stimulate bicep growth?’
They sure are. But if you are looking to really hone your biceps, or target individual heads in the larger biceps muscle group, you have to add isolations to the mix.
When it comes to increasing thickness and definition in your arms, there’s no better choice than the overhead cable curl. The overhead cable curl is the single most effective exercise that has the potential to add to your bicep height, also called the peak, and thickness.
That’s not all. It also recruits almost every muscle in your arm, making it one of the best options for your guns.
What Is Overhead Cable Curl Exercise
As unbelievable as it sounds, the overhead bicep cable curl is not as popular as some of the other biceps exercises, such as the Preacher curl or the concentration curl.
There have been times when we have asked rookie fitness buffs to perform a high rep set of the overhead cable curl towards the end of a workout. But they were just confused about how to perform it.
So here goes. The overhead cable curl is also known as ‘The Crucifix’ curl, because that’s what you look like while performing it. The holy Christ on a crucifix. You stand bang in the middle of the cable station weight stacks and curl the cables towards you.
Pulley and cable systems have been around in strength training and body building since ages. Some say that it’s the inimitable Jack LaLanne who discovered it. But that theory has been widely debated, with some experts claiming that the use of cables were existent even before the 1900s.
Either way, Harold Zinkin of Universal Gym Equipment took the concept one notch ahead and it was only a matter of time before gyms around the world started to stock one of these.
How to Do the Overhead Cable Curl
Enough history. Let’s get down to business.
Here’s a rookie’s guide to perform the overhead cable curl in four simple steps.
Step 1 –Get the cable station ready for the exercise by selecting a comfortable weight, swapping the conventional handle with the stirrup or the D-handle, and adjusting the height to just above shoulder height. It’s an overhead curl, remember? So it has to be above your shoulders at least.
Step 2 – Stand in the middle of the two weight stacks grabbing the handles with an underhand grip. That is, the palms facing upwards. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart. The hands should be fully extended and straight, aligned in a straight line with the shoulders. This is your starting position. The idea here is to pull horizontally while keeping the upper arm stationary.
Step 3 – Exhale as you curl and pull the handles towards your shoulder, contracting and curling the biceps. Continue to pull until the forearms touch your biceps. That’s the final position. Ensure that you achieve max contraction in this position.
Step 4 – Slowly lower the weights and extend your hands back to the starting position, in a slow and controlled motion. That’s one rep. Repeat until the desired number of reps.
Benefits of Overhead Cable Curl
What is it about the overhead cable curl that makes it such an effective (and criminally underrated) exercise for the arms?
Here are a few advantages.
Easy to do
The overhead cable curl is one of the easiest bicep exercises that you can do.
- You are standing upright with your feet shoulder width apart and a neutral spine, which means that you are completely balanced while performing it.Hence, it’s called the crucifix. You do not have to hyperextend your spine or bend your shoulders inwards to lift the weight.
- You will always lift equal weight with both arms. So the probability of disproportionate muscles, or a muscle imbalance occurring is close to zilch. We have seen seasoned athletes recruit more of their dominant arm, even during seemingly simple exercises such as the bicep curl. It just happens subconsciously. But with the cable curl, this rarely occurs.
Recruits a whole bunch of muscle groups in the upper body
Everybody knows that this auxiliary arm exercise is just phenomenal for the biceps and the other muscles of the arms. We will talk more about this in a bit.
But those are only the primary muscles that are recruited when you do the exercise. There are a whole bunch of secondary muscles as well, that nobody seems to be talking about.
- Deltoids – When you grab the handles and pull it towards you so that your arms are extended straight in line with the shoulders, your deltoid is under tension. This is the starting position of the exercise. So, your deltoid, both anterior and posterior continue to be under constant tension for as long as you are holding the weight. It might not be a great hypertrophy exercise for the deltoid. But it’s definitely a terrific exercise for strength.
- Teres Minor – This tiny rotator cuff muscle situated deep within the deltoid is critical for a range of movements. The most significant role it plays is to keep the ball-and-socket glenohumeral joint stable. There are very few exercises that help you strengthen and target the teres minor. The overhead cable curl is one of them.
- Supraspinatus – This is smallest muscle in the rotator cuff that’s located just under the clavicle. It’s so important from a functional perspective. Over a period of time, postural problems as well as strain due to heavy (mostly poor form) lifts can overwork the supraspinatus. The overhead cable curl will strengthen this and can possibly prevent a rotator cuff injury.
- Latissimus dorsi – The largest muscle in the upper body, also called the Lat. If you go really heavy with the overhead cable curl, you can build size and strength in the latissimus dorsi.
Low Risk of Injury
Your arms will literally be the only body part moving, which means that you won’t sway around and swing like crazy during those final reps.
In short, you are less likely to cheat and get injured in the process. It still depends on how you perform the move. We have seen people do everything wrong with this exercise too. But if you maintain a slow and controlled motion, the chances of getting injured with this are slim.
Great for Shoulder Muscle Definition
While there’s so much talk about lateral raises and military presses for shoulders, the overhead cable curl doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
This is a phenomenal exercise for your shoulders. You can reduce or increase the weight depending on whether you want muscle hypertrophy or striations.
The Primary Muscles Worked by the Overhead Cable Curl
Now let’s talk about the primary muscles recruited in the overhead cable curl.
Biceps Brachii – The Biceps Brachii, also called the biceps, is the crown jewel in a bodybuilder’s aesthetic appeal. Well defined, thick and tall biceps will grab attention like no other muscles. Also, it’s the muscle that stands out when you hit the famed front double bicep pose. There are two heads of the bicep muscle, the long (outer) head and the short (inner) head. Without getting too technical, the long head is what gives your bicep the height, also called the peak. The short head is what gives it thickness, that separates it from the long head. The overhead cable curl will recruit both these bicep heads, but it’s more effective for targeting the short head. It will add thickness and width to your biceps. Club this with any exercise that rotates the arm internally, such as the hammer curls and your biceps will start to transform.
Brachialis – Another tiny muscle that gets lost in all the talk about biceps and triceps. The Brachialis is the most important muscle for the elbow flexion. If functionality doesn’t get first dibs in your fitness routine, then here’s another more motivating reason. When you target the brachialis, it presses against your bicep muscle, which increases the height of the bicep. So, the overhead cable bicep curl may not directly target the long head of the bicep as much as it recruits the short head. But it indirectly helps you gain bicep height too.
Triceps –While it’s not a great size building triceps exercise, it is frequently used by powerlifters to balance strength in the triceps. Triceps strength is the key to lifting heavy weights overhead and the cable curl is one of the best exercises to target it.
Variations of the Overhead Cable Curl
There are two variations of the overhead cable curl that can be used to further target individual muscles heads, or just add some variety to your routine.
One-Handed Overhead Cable Curl
Some gyms do not have a cable crossover station. So you might have to work with a dual cable station instead. It’s a great substitute in most cases. But the overhead cable curl presents us with a very unique challenge.
Remember the crucifix position and the extended arms at the starting position? Chances are that you might not have the room to stand in this position with the weights lifted off the rack. That’s the key here. The weights have to be lifted at all times, which creates a constant tension in your arms.
If you do not have the room, then your arms may be bended, which means that you either sacrifice on your range of motion, or the weights rest on the rack. Neither are beneficial.
In such a scenario, you can do a one-handed overhead cable curl. It’s essentially the same exercise, but performed with one hand.
- So, you set the weight, adjust the height, attach the stirrup handle, all on one weight stand. Now pull the cable until it’s flexed taut. That’s your starting position.
- Perform the curl as instructed earlier. Ensure that you maintain a straight back throughout the move.
Seated overhead cable curl
This variation of the overhead cable curl is more conventional, because it’s performed with an EZ-curl bar attached to the pulley station, instead of the stirrup handle. This positions the weight in front of you, which you pull towards you.
The advantage is that it recruits the long head of the biceps more than the short head. You can add this to the routine to switch things up a tad.
Mistakes to Avoid when Doing Overhead Cable Curls
Despite being one of the easiest bicep exercises, we have seen athletes mess up the overhead cable curl.
So, here’s a list of don’ts to watch out for while performing the exercise.
Do not arch your back – Always maintain a neutral spine. Don’t hyperextend it because it causes unwanted stress on your spinal muscles. Similarly, do not bend forward either.
Do not pull with the shoulders – The idea is to isolate your biceps. When you recruit any other muscle, it reduces the efficiency of the exercise.
Do not move your elbows – Your upper arm stays stationary throughout the move, until the last rep. It’s only your forearms that will move.
Do not move your body –You are crucified while performing this move. You absolutely cannot move around your torso or swing around like crazy. Everything should stay rock steady while your forearms pull the weight.
Overhead Cable Curl Alternative Exercises
In the rare scenario that your gym does not even have a dual cable station, here are some great alternative moves for the overhead cable curl that will provide equally good benefits for your arms.
Upright dumbbell row
We know what you are thinking. This is not a bicep workout at all. But it’s a terrific compound move that recruits your biceps, delts, traps, lats and triceps. Enough said.
Step 1 – Stand straight with a pair of dummbells in your hand. Use an overhand grip and let the weights hang, holding them in front of your upper thighs. The palms should be facing the body.
Step 2 – Pull the dumbbells upwards towards your chest, flaring the elbows outwards as you do this. Stop when the weights are at your chest level. Pause for a count and lower the weight. Repeat until the desired reps.
Dumbbell Reverse Curls
The reverse curls target almost the same muscles as the overhead cable curl. But it places slightly more emphasis on the brachialis.
Step 1 – Stand straight with the weights in front of your body, exactly like the starting position of the upright dumbbell row. The grip is pronated or overhand with the palms facing your body.
Step 2 – Inhale and curl the weight up towards the shoulder. Pause for a count and lower the weight. That’s one rep. Repeat for the desired number of reps.
The chin up needs no introduction, does it? It’s a fundamental strength exercise that targets your biceps and your lats. But it also involves the deltoids and stabilizer muscles located deep in the spine.
Step 1 –Jump up (if you can) and grab a chin up bar. You can grab it with an overhand grip and switch to an underhand grip before the move. Alternatively, you can climb up a bench or a jump box to grab the bar.
Step 2 – Hang straight, keeping a long spine. Lift the chest up and brace your abs as you pull the body upwards towards the bar. Once your chin goes above the bar, lower your body until you are hanging freely with your arms straight. That’s one rep. Repeat for the desired number of reps.